I don’t know what first drew me to the idea of visiting Sri Lanka, I think it might have been sitting on the grass on a summers day by the river in Richmond with my friend Pippa who had just returned from a yoga trip there and described the country in such a beautiful way that my eternal wanderlust was peaked.
I planned to go that winter (2016) and when I met a guy in the fall who seemed as keen on me as he was the idea of doing the trip together, I began to plan and get overly excited about the adventure (as well as the relationship). Sadly after months of long-distance planning on the phone about what we would do and where we would visit, his excitement waned and we broke up the following January. Somehow the thought of heading to Sri Lanka had become tied to him and so instead I nursed my wounded heart the following summer in Bali.
That trip to Bali and the remainder of the summer served to heal those wounds, but when I met Jonny in early August I was a little more wary at throwing my heart out in front of me and hoping that this time it wouldn’t be trampled on. I headed to Ibiza a couple of months later and he asked if he could join, but I knew I needed to focus on work whilst I was there (I was co-hosting a yoga retreat with my friend) and so I suggested that we do a trip together later in the year instead, to Majorca, somewhere I’d been wanting to re-visit again to see another side to the island than my 18-year old party trip to Magaluf!
Again, I put off the trip. I suppose I was still wary of someone seemingly so nice, knowing that those are the ones who usually break your heart the hardest! Thankfully, my reluctance to commit to a plan didn’t put him off and when I began to finally get round to planning Sri Lanka again and he expressed an interest in joining, I knew that if I refused, I would only ruin the trip for myself by missing him the whole time. It was still early days in our relationship, but something told me that the trip would be an important transition for us and I was right.
We arrived early hours in the morning on 30th December, thankfully having had the foresight to book a transfer in advance to our hotel in Hikkaduwa where we’d be spending our first few nights. We had a few hours before reaching our destination, which we spent half wanting to catch some precious few hours of slumber, and half gazing out at the scenery passing by.
We’d chosen Hikkaduwa specifically for our first stop because it’s one of the more ‘touristy’ destinations. Not something that is usually a criteria when travelling but I figured it would be good to be somewhere a little busier so we’d have more of an atmosphere to bring in the New Year. Luckily the hotel – Cafe Ceylon – we’d chosen was a boutique-style accommodation on the south side of the beach, away from the crowds – so much so that it almost felt like we had our own private beach! I spotted a morning yoga class taking place on the deck outside so made the decision to wake early the next day to bring in the morning flowing to the sound of the waves.
The next day (NYE), post-yoga, Jonny joined me for breakfast at Cafe Ceylon where he found his love of the local ‘Roast Paan’ bread, a delicious thick and fluffy white toasted bread baked by individual slice in a wood-fire oven. Heavenly! Bellies now full, we were grateful of the meandering 30 minute walk up the beach to where ‘the action’ takes place. This being the bars, restaurants and surf lessons. Jonny has grown up surfing in the waves of Scarborough but I’d only tried it a handful of times over the course of a few years and so opted for a lesson. For 2500 rupee (roughly £11) I had a private lesson with one of the local surf instructors. I’d read about the importance of opting for a local instructor rather than a fellow Brit or traveller as it’s important to support the local economy and give back to the country where we are simply guests, and I’m glad that I did. My instructor Aragon was friendly, and clearly knew the waves well. The surf in Hikkaduwa was actually pretty strong, and although I consider myself a reasonably strong swimmer, I wouldn’t have wanted to head out with a board alone. After a short lesson on the sand, we headed straight out where I paddled against the powerful waves of the Indian Ocean and reached a spot where Aragon would hold me steady until it was time to hop up and learn how to position my body on the board. When my wave came in, I popped up and rode right the way in to the beach (a beginner faux pas) where I beamed up at Jonny to check he’d seen.
I caught each wave I was sent for after that, with each one learning a new skill; how to adjust my feet, pop up quicker and even swerving around another surfer who’d come off their board. Just as I was feeling quite pleased with myself, the waves picked up and I was taught a valuable lesson about protecting your head when emerging from under the waves. After the second knock on the head, I figured it was time to head back to dry land and retire my board until the next day. The sun now at its most powerful, we grabbed a beach bed in the shade and snoozed away the afternoon until the surf picked back up in time for Jonny to head out as I watched dutifully from the beach.
That evening we brought the New Year in in style with a three-course dinner at Cafe Ceylon. Tuna sashimi and fresh oysters to start, lobster prawns and skin-crusted snapper for the main, and for dessert a brandy snap pudding.
We’d taken our time savouring each mouthful, tasting the freshness of the seafood that had been caught that day from the very same waves we were gazing out at. So consumed by the food, we barely noticed the time slipping by but thankfully it dawned on us in time to grab a tuk tuk up to the busier end of the beach to join the party at Funky De Bar. A mix of travellers and locals poured out of the bar and onto the sandy beach where we stood watching the fireworks go off as the clock struck midnight.
The next day followed much of the same; surf, sleep and eat. It was Poya Day on 1st January – a day to honour the full moon – and so no alcohol was served which was no bad thing as it was my intention to get up early again for another sunrise yoga session at the hotel next door. After three days recovering from jetlag plus adding in both daily surf and yoga, I decided it was a day to take it easy and so we headed further south from our hotel to explore the other end of the beach. We stopped to watch some local fishermen pulling in the nets with their catch and, friendly as ever, they asked if we wanted to join in. I gave it a go for a couple of minutes but soon gave up and settled for admiring the fishing boats further down the beach instead.
Earlier that day we’d been stopped by a local man who’d asked if we were interested in a tour of the nearby lagoon. I was a bit dubious at first, I’m not used to taking a tour from someone who doesn’t appear to be from an official company or that hasn’t been recommended – I guess that wariness comes with solo travelling. But with Jonny there, I knew we would be fine and besides, I wasn’t having any gut feeling that it was a bad idea. We met at the agreed time and spot and wandered quietly through his local village, noticing the simplicity of life in such a small town compared to the bustle of London that we’re used to at home. It’s always a strange experience going away to another country that is supposedly less developed than our own. You see a more humble way of living, but for the most part it actually seems to be more appealing. I suppose we are only getting a glimpse at the tranquil village and not really seeing how hard the locals have to work.
We stopped at the edge of the lake where we climbed aboard the man’s long boat, popping our little wooden seats in place as he began to row us across the expansive lake, through coves where we spotted varans (crocodile-like creatures!), jumping fish and monkeys playing in the trees. We glided past a small island in the middle of the lake which is inhabited by Buddhist monks, although sadly we weren’t allowed to stop and explore. We did stop at another spot though where we visited a colourfully decorated Buddhist temple before heading back to the village and taking the slow walk home. It actually turned out pretty well to have this unique personalised experience, just the three of us on a boat on this tranquil lake.
That evening we got more of a taste of the local life when we asked our tuktuk driver to drop us off at ‘the best spot for Sri Lankan curry’. We stopped at Homegrown where dinner was just 500 rupees (£2.50) and included the most delicious curry, dhal, rice and vegetables. Sadly we were moving on to Weligama the next day or I think there might have been several return visits!
Click here for Part 2…